symphony's Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis (Premium Edition) (PlayStation 2) review

Like a good alchemy recipe

For a game that revolves around the pursuit of the alchemy, it's fitting that one can compare Mana Khemia to a properly executed alchemy recipe. Start with a solid base, toss in a dash of brilliance, a couple of components that never fail, and of course a hint of experimental craziness. If Mana Khemia had a recipe sheet it would go something like this:

Base components
Ingredient: Standard JRPG menus, weapons, character types

Ingredient: Amnesiac Main Character who doesn't know much about his past

Ingredient: Enemy shrouded in mystery that you slowly learn about as the game progresses

Ingredient: Usual NIS graphics and sound.

Reliable Ingredients
Ingredient: Great sense of humor
Effect: Keeps the dialogue fresh and takes the characters from "usual JRPG-types" to endearing members of your party
Side-Effect: A few extra bonuses here and there for fans of previous NIS games.

Ingredient: Deep and involving alchemy system
Effect: Combined with the leveling system, you will spend countless hours crafting items.

Ingredient: "High-school life" mechanic
Effect: Progresses the story in a linear fashion (eg. one event per week) but offers plenty of variety and optional things to do

Ingredient: The ability to keep the original Japanese voice actors
Effect: While the English is not terrible, the Japanese breathe more life into almost all of the characters
Unplanned side-effect: It would seem no amount of language-alteration will make Pamela sound good.

Ingredient: "Free Time" system
Effect: Sort of a reward for progressing the story and completing courses.
Effect: Let's you complete side-quests for money or progress with individual party members sub-plots.

Ingredients: Dying isn't game over except in plot-important fights
Effect: You won't lose all your AP, items, etc if you get into an unlucky fight at night.

Ingredient: Rumor system
Effect: Accomplishing things opens up rumors you can spread that give your characters bonuses, make stores sell things cheaper, etc.

Rare Components
Ingredient: Tag-type fighter inspired combat system (think Marvel vs Capcom 2)
Effect: Effectively let's you use twice as many party members in combat
Effect: "Sidelined"  party members no longer feel useless once you have your "favorite team"

Ingredient: FFX-inspired leveling board system
Effect: An original leveling system with a familiar feel
Effect: Makes grinding experience obsolete

Ingredient: School course system
Effect: Let's you choose what sort of courses you do to progress the story -- combat, alchemy, or exploration.
Effect: Keeps the game fresh and let's you focus on the aspects you enjoy the most.
Effect: If you get As it allows you to open up your schedule for more "Free time" rather than forcing you to complete more mundane classes

Ingredient: Low-cost recipe
Effect: You save real life bucks, as the game was re-released at less than $20.

Ingredient: Trash monsters are entirely avoidable
Effect: You can pick and choose which fights you want to be a part of, attacking monsters on the map-screen to get first strike.
Effect: Weaker mobs are instantly killable on the field screen, disappearing and dropping items.

Experimental Explosives
Ingredient: Day / Night clock on a 10 minute timer
Effect: Makes enemies super strong and aggressive at night
Unplanned side-effect: Gives you an excuse to find something else to do for 5 minutes until it's daytime again.

Ingredient: Questionable over-localization
Effect: Induces head-scratching at some of the spelling/dramatically errors.
Effect: Philomel's name was changed to Jessica in the English release of the game. Not sure why... didn't sound girly enough?


Mix for 40-60 hours until complete (may repeat again if so desired)

Really, this game is awesome. I was pleasantly surprised when I found this at my local game store, though the cover art threw me off a bit -- it's sideways. The original release had normal cover art, but for some reason they felt like messing with it on the $20 re-release. But that's a triviality.

Mana Khemia is a part of the Altier Iris franchise, though having only played the first one, I can't make any comparisons besides the fact they all revolve around Alchemy. The main character of Mana Khemia is a boy named Vayne who doesn't really know much about his past and was left to grow up alone with a cat named Sulphur, whom he learns is a Mana -- a spirit that only those gifted with the ability to use alchemy can see and can commune with.

One day one of the teachers at Al-Revis Academy finds Vayne and invites him to study at their school. Vayne accepts and begins his life as a first-year student at the alchemist's academy, quickly making friends with a singing, fighting cat-girl, a Hero-of-Justice, huge-sword-wielding senpai, and a kind and sensitive girl who happens to enjoy making crazy potions and making people drink them (most of which turn out to be poison).

From there, school life begins and the game slowly introduces you to all of the different facets it has to offer. You learn of how the schedule works and that you have to attend classes before you are given free time to relax and get to know your new friends. The game is divided into "Chapters", with each chapter then being divided into "Weeks". The first week is always some sort of event, usually setting up the over-arcing story of that chapter. Subsequent weeks are used to take classes - one per week, until you meet the mark requirement. For the first few chapters, all of the courses you take will be mandatory, teaching you various aspects of the game such as alchemy, combat, combos, map-use, etc. The game holds your hand through this initial stage, but there are plenty of things to do on the side so it doesn't feel like a prolonged tutorial mode.

The main story of Mana Khemia is a slow burn and for the first half of the game it feels like you'll be living out your three years in school with relative ease and happiness, aside from the crazy antics your group gets into. Of course, that is not to be and certain events lead to an ultimate confrontation in the end.Getting to the finale can take quite a good amount of time -- 40-60 hours depending on how much you enjoy the alchemy, character sub-plots and side-quests.

There is plenty of replayability as well, with lots of different things to collect -- bestiary, alchemy recipes, rumors, etc -- and an extra dungeon opening up once you complete the game with more items to be found and a cameo from another NIS title appearing as a boss.

The game runs off of the same engine that many NIS titles, such as Disgaea or Altier Iris use and really feels dated. Your character doesn't have a shadow so jumping from ledge to ledge can be unnecessarily tricky at times since you can't tell if you're over certain areas or not. It also suffers from some slowdown while navigating areas once in awhile. Not sure why as practically everything are low-quality 2D objects, but it's not enough to really hurt the game... just shows the age and sloppiness of the engine. The music is also standard NIS fanfare, with nothing being all that memorable or great. In all honesty, I turned down the music through most of the game and had my own playlist playing in the background.

As with nearly every NIS title, you're given the option to keep the original Japanese voice cast or switch to the English. I didn't really care for the English and stuck with the Japanese. Also, based on some of the terrible grammar errors some of the dialogue has, I wonder how they could have voiced those lines and not noticed the mistakes. I couldn't help but compare and contrast Mana Khemia's localization with Persona 3 or 4's. Where the Personas assumed (correctly) that their audience isn't retarded and decided to keep a definite Japanese feel to the games (keeping words like Senpai and calling school years 1st year, 2nd year, 3rd year), Mana Khemia tried to westernize it heavily, oddly deciding to go with Freshman, Sophomore, and Senior. Where Juniors disappeared to I can only guess.

This is what leads to a lot of weird translation errors, but nothing story-breaking -- the general idea behind what they're saying is being conveyed. Though if you can understand even basic Japanese, you'll notice a lot of differences between what they are actually saying and what is showing up in the text box. In any event, most of the Japanese voice actors do a fantastic job portraying their characters (I really liked Nikki and Flay), though a few are a bit jarring -- Pamela and Muppy, in particular.

Don't expect any fancy animations from the character sprites during conversations -- the portraits will cover that all up and emotion is conveyed through different expression portraits. The only time a sprite conveyed any sort of real action that I recall was Nikki singing, but that looked reaaaaally silly.  The portraits follow the same theme of "dated" that most of the graphics in Mana Khemia follow. They don't look quite as clean or polished as Disgaea's, but they get the job done.

While I'm focusing on the few negative qualities of the game, let's get the last issue out of the way -- While you're exploring dungeons and such, you'll notice a clock of sorts in the top right of the screen. This serves to tell you what time of day it is -- it takes 10 minutes to cycle through an entire in-game day. In the daytime, monsters act normally and can be easily avoided if you choose to do so. At night (the game will notify you that you have spent 9 hours in the field), the monsters will suddenly start acting like they're boosted up on Speed. They'll chase after you aggressively and more often than not get the first attack in combat. Once engaged, running from them is especially hard and they deal double damage. It's very easy to get wrecked by mobs at night that you'd normally steamroll in the day. Thankfully, the game doesn't end your adventuring career in such an event and sends you back to the school infirmary.

If you've played Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, you should know the night/day mechanic well - just think "What a horrible night to have a curse".

I can't help but wonder why they felt they needed to add this game mechanic. I found it better just to find something else to do for 5 minutes while waiting for daytime to come again rather than risking getting destroyed by a group of trash monsters. Not only that, but the time-cycle messes with the continuity of the game and can end up confusing the player. There are classes and events that specify you need to return to them by the top of the hour. Well, as soon as you take about 20 paces into any area, an hour has already passed in-game, and no it's not a real-life time limit, so why even bother saying that? It just leads you to believe you have a super short amount of time to accomplish their tasks. There are similar classes that say you have "Estimated time to complete: 30 minutes" which I figured was 30 minutes real time, but after completing the task my character's notebook would say "Time it took to complete fight: 38 minutes" when the fight only lasted, maybe, 3 minutes real time. I still got A's in those classes, so I really have no clue why they felt the need to put those time variables in there at all.

Alright, that's the bad. Now where to begin with the good, cause there's a LOT of things done right in Mana Khemia. I found myself asking aloud - "Why don't more games do this?" on more than one occasion. A couple things worth mentioning -- The game has a rumor system (kind of similar to Persona 2's but much more basic), where you pay someone to spread rumors about your team which will then boost your stats, make stores charge less, or boost your alchemy skills. Mana Khemia takes other aspects of the more recent Personas and puts its own twist on them as well. The "High School life" theme, but instead of days, you go by weeks, and this isn't a dating sim RPG, though you'll definitely notice chemistry between some of the characters. The sense of humor is also very similar and induces a lot of laughter, even though the localization is not nearly as well-done as the Personas.

One aspect of Mana Khemia that really shines is the combat. You're only able to have three active members in your party at one time and that might seem pretty limiting when you get a total of 8 characters by the end of the game, but here's where the dev team used their noggins. You get to place 3 additional members in reserve that you can call upon to replace your active members at any time during combat. The best times to do so are right after an active member hit or to replace one as they're defending to take the blow. If you replace a member as they're attacking, the member that jumps into the ring will attack as they do so and then get their own turn relatively quickly. You can even chain multiple on-call characters one after the other to unleash bigger chain combos. If you end such a combo with Vayne, you unleash even more damage in the form of a Variable Burst.

The system has a very Marvel vs Capcom 2 feel to it which is an awesome idea for an RPG combat system -- it makes combat really fun, and keeps things fresh. It also means you won't only have three characters you bother leveling and gearing up, but rather at least six of them. Honestly, you're much better off gearing all of them as each character has their own situational abilities they bring to the table where you'll want to swap out certain characters for specific fights. For example, Roxis has the ability to wipe away recurring attacks that mobs cast, which can come in major handy for monsters that only have those kinds of attacks. Flay brings a lot of physical recurring attacks to the table that will keep on attacking even if you swap him out, so he can come in handy for physical heavy fights. Pamela builds up a total immunity to physical attacks, so clearly she is great in physical heavy fights. The list goes on as each character has their own strengths and weaknesses.

To continue with the Marvel vs Capcom analogy, there's also a bar that fills in the bottom left of the screen as you deal damage (it fills faster if you crit or exploit weaknesses). When that bar fills you go ito an overdrive mode of sorts, where your characters act faster and deal more damage (though each attack slowly drops the bar). A second gauge opens up when this happens as well fills if you meet a certain requirement the game asks of you, such as "activate quickness" or "deal critical damage". When this second bar fills your characters will unlock a Special ability, like a Super or Ultra move, that they can unleash on the enemies dealing massive amounts of damage. If you don't happen to fill the second gauge up by the time the first is emptied, it remembers how much was filled up and keeps it at that level for the next time it becomes available.

Another area where Mana Khemia shines, thankfully, is the alchemy system. Thankfully, since this is what the game heavily revolves around. Not only do you need it in order to craft items and gear, but it is directly linked to how you level. Each character has a level grid much like FFX's. There are orbs you spend AP on to unlock new abilities, high stats, etc. While FFX controlled how much you could unlock primarily by Lock nodes that couldn't be opened until the game presented you with keys, Mana Khemia attaches 1-3 stat/ability nodes to different items. Each character has their own unique board of items and every time you craft an item it will unlock the corresponding item node on those boards (provided it is accessible). Once an item node is unlocked, the stat nodes around it become accessible and a character may spend their AP (earned in combat) to purchase the abilities or stats in those nodes.

Sound confusing? It's really not, especially if you have played FFX (Heck, the background they use looks strangely similar to FFX's). It's just one of those things that is so much easier to explain with visuals.

Putting the leveling aspect aside, alchemy is also key to making good items great. Depending on the quality of the materials you craft, they will have different properties attached. The properties can range from magical spells to stat boosts, to stunning mobs easier, adding poison to your attacks, etc. In turn you can use materials with these stats on them to craft weapons and armor and transfer those properties onto that gear.If you're heavy into min/maxing stats, this will have you spending hours just trying to perfect recipes to get the stat bonuses or spells you want. Many of the better weapons and armor will let you use older pieces of gear in the craft, which lets you easily transfer your old gears stats into the new stuff. Smart move.

The only small gripe I have with alchemy is that, unlike another (older) Gust-developed, NIS-published game -- Ar Tonelico, it won't ask you if you want to craft the materials you need for a more complex item if you have the mats to do so in your inventory. You have to manually craft those materials first and then craft the more complex object. Ar Tonelico automated the whole system after asking if you just wanted to let it craft all the materials required first. This is just being nit-picky though, as crafting those materials doesn't take long at all, and you can even mass produce them if you have the mats to make more than one.

NIS has a very hit or miss reputation with good reason. While they're responsible for the classic Disgaea and the enjoyable Ar Tonelico and Altier Iris franchises, they also have a slew of shoddy, poorly developed games. Thankfully, Mana Khemis definitely falls into the "hit" category and with a bit more polish and TLC it could have been truly astonishing. Even with the weak graphics, generic sound, and odd choice in a night/day cycle, the game is awesome, has a terrific cast of endearing characters, and is a hell of a lot of fun to play.

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